Kids are pretty smart. They know a lot more than meets the eye, and more often than not, anything a kid may ask you about life and the universe may seem perceptibly simple to them, but will leave you in a state of existential crisis (which, or course, kids tend to shrug off so effortlessly). It’s due to reasons like this that movies that are aimed specifically at kids are often insulting to their intelligence; the existence of certain film and television franchises simply act as extended commercials for the next hot toy to buy for the upcoming holiday season. But kids love watching movies for the sake of watching movies as well, and in this wonderful little golden age of animated family films, we are privileged to experience some wonderful pieces of cinema that not only entertain and instill virtuous values into our youngsters. Khumba, a South Africa-produced 3D animated feature, fortunately falls within this more than favourable camp.
Khumba tells the story of a young zebra of the same name, born into a society of zebras secluded in the middle of the Karoo desert. They are safe from outsiders, and their livelihoods revolve around a fruitful watering hole. When Khumba is discovered to have been born with only half of his stripes (his rear half is a bare white), the zebra community treat this as a terrible omen, and he is branded as a freak and outsider to his peers. To make matters worse, his birth coincides with a drought that completely dries up the community’s waterhole, further ostracising him from the herd. His parents attempt to teach him to cope with and accept his unique circumstances, but it isn’t until Khumba’s mother passes away that he decides to leave the thorn-fenced home and search for the fabled magic water hole, which he believes will give him back the stripes that he longs for throughout the course of the story.
The main theme in this film is blunt and remarkably straightforward, informing the youth audience of the importance of individuality and self-acceptance. It uses a wonderful in-universe mythos regarding the history of zebrakind and the origins of their stripes; it is through this story that Khumba eventually learns the value of his unique background, as well as the perils of uninformed conformity. The adult figures in the zebra tribe also come to realize the error of their ways, and their society as a whole is changed for the better, thanks to the courage of Khumba himself.
The message in itself isn’t preachy at all; it is poignant message that is even explored in duality between protagonist and antagonist. Where Khumba responds to his outcasting by seeking to make a difference in his world, the bad guy in the movie, a fearsome leopard hunter named Phango (voiced by the menacing talents of Liam Neeson) is also a pariah in his own leopard clan; he was born with poor eyesight, and was singled out for his disability. Phango ended up taking revenge on his entire community by slaughtering every last member, developing a keen sense of smell that he uses to a much greater effect than most do with vision alone. This trait is communicated wonderfully through a fantastic visual effect that is reminiscent of Link’s Wolf form in the video game The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, but is rendered in more vibrant colours and matches superbly with the 3D effects incorporated into the film’s presentation. Phango identifies the special traits of Khumba, and instead of saving the world from drought, he seeks Khumba’s special aura himself, convinced that the successful hunt will make him a complete, unrivaled predator of the great Karoo.
It’s this particular rivalry that makes Khumba unique in its treatment of the theme in comparison to other similar box-office successes such as How To Train Your Dragon. In Dragon, the protagonist Hiccup isn’t faced with a dire conflict with an antagonist like Phango; he is more concerned about changing society and challenging its perception of his best friend Toothless and dragons in general. The two films, despite their similar messages and Aesop, go about executing them in completely different ways, yet manage to do so with the same respect for the intelligence of its primary target audience. Both films are remarkably fun for the entire family, but Dragon is unquestionably the more well-rounded and superior production.
That said, it was a remarkable experience for me to watch this film in the context of the film festival itself; during the Q&A session with Anthony Silverston, writer and director of Khumba, most of the questions were asked by the kids in the audience, and they ranged from adorably charming (“Is the magical watering hole real?”) to pointedly philosophical (“If Khumba and Phango were both the same in the way they were different from their herds, why did they fight?”). It made me realize the potential in children to think in different ways; this demographic deserves a lot more credit than they get, and it’s through movies like these that they get to indulge in their own unique brands of intelligence.